We don’t actually taste with our tongues.
Our taste buds are receptive to chemical compounds like sugars and acids, and the skin inside our mouths responds to physical aspects of our food and drink, such as temperature and viscosity. It is actually an organ called the olfactory bulb – situated just behind our noses – that responds most acutely to the myriad biochemicals present in food and drink. As we chew a mouthful or swish liquid around our mouths, these molecules are released into the nasal cavity, where they encounter the olfactory bulb and trigger the experience of what we call ‘flavour’. (See here for my more in-depth piece on this.)
However, the smell receptors in our olfactory bulb or the taste buds on our tongues don’t actually account for our sense of taste. Our nose and tongue merely generate electrical signals in response to what we chew or sip, which are transmitted along nerves to the brain. It is the role of our brain to interpret these signals and provide us with a holistic flavour experience.
In much the same way, our ears are merely the conduits through which music reaches our brain. Sounds waves channelled through the ear canal impact the ear drum, causing it to vibrate. These vibrations are transmitted to the snail-shaped cochlea, which converts the vibrations to nerve impulses by way of specialised hair cells that sit inside fluid-filled tubes. Once again, it is the role of the brain to decipher the electrical impulses and create a sonic experience of the voices or instruments that initially generated those sound waves.
Merely decoding electrical signals as experiential data is not the only thing our brains do when our senses are activated. This most sophisticated of organs automatically conjures up pictures, metaphors and memories in response to what we taste, smell or hear. If we engage our senses actively, the brain forms neural connections between these images, words, and reminiscences, generating structures that can themselves be expressed visually or through language.
And sometimes these structures cross over one another.
An unusual example of senses ‘crossing over’ is called synaesthesia, whereby the stimulation of one set of sensory apparatus results in an experience in another. For instance, you might experience ‘seeing’ colours when hearing music or ‘feel’ something on your skin in response to sound.
Although, a synaesthetic experience is not the only way in which senses cross over in our heads. The interpretation of all those electrical signals is by no means straightforward – despite millions of years of evolution, we often can’t ‘make sense’ of our senses and are routinely tricked by optical, aural or even taste illusions. To avoid persistent sensory overload, our brains forge constructs based on prior experiences to help us interpret new ones. These constructs can be grounded in memory, in language, in imagery, and in ways that are fiendishly difficult to convey to another person. We see this difficulty in the language we use in an attempt to convey the sensory experience: a wine may be ‘harmonious’; music may be ‘smooth’; an embrace may be ‘warm’; the framing of a portrait may be ‘coherent’.
Constructs that develop for one sense might also work for another, and this is a concept that I’ve been exploring recently through the medium of wine tasting and singing choral music. As I’ve developed my ability in active tasting, I noticed that I tend to taste wines in ‘structures’. The best descriptions I have of these so far are the sketchy diagrams that populate my tasting notebooks. These images describe for me an aspect of the sensory experience of the passage of the wine along the palate. From the first sip at the lips, through progression along the tongue, to swallowing, and finally any residual experience from the finish. Some wines are taut and linear; others billowing and mellifluous.
Analogously, music is also made up of structures. These could be structures in form, such as a repeating guitar riff, a refrain in a lullaby or the underlying rhythm in a fugue. Or they could be structures in frequency – the make-up of different combinations of notes that appear simultaneously to create chords and harmonies. Textural structures could also be invoked as different instruments or voice parts are used in different parts of the piece. Most commonly all these structural elements are at play simultaneously in even a ‘simple’ piece of music. While composers and songwriters use structures deliberately to create music, listeners experience a different set of structures, unbidden, as the music is interpreted by the brain and emotional and intellectual responses are stimulated. And the words I used to describe some of my taste experiences with wine – taut, linear, billowing, mellifluous – might just as equally be applied to different pieces of music I hear.
In an event later this month, I’ve teamed up with Victoria Ely, Artistic Director of Evoke – a London-based chamber choir with whom I sing – to explore the relationship between these sound and taste experiences. With Tasting Notes: Harmony in Wine & Song, we match individual wines to sets of choral music sung live by Evoke. Wines will be served blind to remove as much cognitive bias as possible and allow the audience to be open to what memories, structures and harmonies are evoked by both wine and song.
Through the collaborative research process of deciding both repertoire and wines, I have learned a lot about the relationship between the different constructs that form in my head as I listen to music and taste wine – and how these reactions relate to and complement each other. One wine had a tight and precise tannin structure that for me conjured up the rhythmical structure of a Bach fugue. Another wine echoed a folk ditty – short and uncomplicated, yet satisfying, complete and fun.
Of course, each person’s experience to the world around us is unique and highly subjective. Tasting Notes is less a prescription of the ‘correct’ pairing of wine and music and more an invitation to open to what your senses awaken in you.